Terra Incognita: Paternalism, Israel’s Arab minority and elections

Israel needs a new kind of politics.

June 4, 2019 21:19
4 minute read.
Terra Incognita: Paternalism, Israel’s Arab minority and elections

HOW WILL he vote next time?. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A new narrative is sweeping discussions about Israeli politics among some who want to see the next government include the Center-Left.

Israel needs a new kind of politics. For generations, the Center-Left has ignored the Arab minority. In order to win the next elections, a new Arab-Jewish party must emerge on the Left, and this will finally galvanize the voters and bring about a paradigm shift.

It can be done. One problem, though. Only Jewish voices seem to be championing this new paternalism.

After every election where the Left in Israel performs dismally, there is a lot of hand wringing and soul searching. What went wrong? For some reason, the answer always seems to be to reinvent the wheel, but with a bit more arrogance and blind spots rubbed on. A new Arab-Jewish party is the latest strange iteration of this.

We hear glowing reports about the “chances” for such a gathering. Almost every discussion begins the same way. The next election is a great opportunity for Arabs in Israel to work together with Jews on the Left. Liberal Zionism needs to reach out to Arabs and “amplify their voice.” J Street even chimed in after the April elections, claiming that the Center-Left had not offered a “clear, alternative vision.”

But wait. There are two leftist parties in Israel that have numerous Arab voters and already have Jews and Arabs at the top of their lists historically. Meretz and Hadash have these components. Meretz’s list for the April elections includes Esawi Frej and Ali Salalhah as number four and five on their list. Sixth place was taken by Ethiopian Jewish candidate Mahareta Ron Baruch. Isn’t this the rainbow of diversity that people have been suggesting Israel needs? Arabs and Jews from different backgrounds. Druze, Ethiopian Jews and Mizrahim.

BUT NO. Meretz isn’t apparently good enough for those pitching another fantasy Arab-Jewish party. So why not Hadash? Good left-wing, even communist, credentials over there. Dov Henin, its former MK, was widely respected across the aisle in the Knesset. Ayman Odeh, the leader of Hadash, is also well respected and has proved himself. But no, somehow an existing and historic party that has had Jews and Arabs working together for decades isn’t good enough?

Instead what we hear, often from English-language media, is that Arabs really should be voting more in Israeli elections. Turnout for Arabs was only 63% in 2015 and was estimated at 49% in 2019, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. That’s disastrously low.

Across Israel, turnout declined from 72.3% to 68.5%. Low turnout among Arab voters has tended to mean that the multiplicity of small Arab parties, such as the United Arab List, Ta’al and Balad, receive a few seats each in the Knesset.

They all ran together with Hadash in 2015 and got 13 seats out of 120. That’s barely 10% of the seats, half what they should have. And this isn’t because large numbers of Arabs vote for other parties. With the exception of Meretz, and some villages that vote for Shas, they don’t. In the 2019 elections, Balad and UAL, running together, barely passed the threshold into the Knesset with 3 seats. Hadash and Ta’al, running together, got only 6 seats, despite the charismatic Ahmad Tibi and Odeh.

The problem for those who imagine a fantasy new Arab-Jewish party or Arabs choosing to vote for Labor or Blue and White is that no one is even interested in listening to Arab voters. Have you ever read an article where someone suggests what Arabs “should” do or how their voice will be “amplified” and has actually spoken to Arabs in Israel, or had an Arab write the article about their own community? Can anyone imagine the paternalism of someone who isn’t Jewish lecturing American Jews about their “opportunities” to vote in the next US elections?

Jews would surely respond “thank you, we are adults, we can choose to vote for who we want, we don’t need scraps from the table.”

Arab voters in Israel, who over the years I’ve gotten to know a bit, know they have a choice. There are no shortage of campaign stickers and posters and access to media. And they have had access to Arab-Jewish political partnerships for years. This idea that there is “no alternative” and if only someone from abroad will parachute in some new ideas like “Arab-Jewish coexistence,” the voters will rush to the polls, is misleading.

Maybe the voters know the math. They know that a large centrist party made up primarily of former generals and right-wing parties, which are where most of the Israeli Jewish electorate increasingly stands, isn’t much of a choice. All the voices who have prophecies about Arab voters might spend the next month listening to concerns in Rahat, Nazareth, Jisr e-Zarka, Jish, Taiba and other places, and then have an Arab write about their concerns in the next elections. The rest is just wasted paternalism.

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